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How Design Thinking Builds Empathy, Gives Purpose and Honors Educators

How Design Thinking Builds Empathy, Gives Purpose and Honors Educators

In her early teaching years, Wanny Hersey learned how hands-on projects—which would eventually become known as “making”— could engage and motivate her English students like nothing she’d seen before. She’d witnessed the heartbreak of watching a one-size-fits-all education system fail to engage students who needed it most. And the joy of nurturing students’ natural desire to solve problems and create.

These experiences as a teacher and administrator inspired her to found Bullis Charter school—with both her past and future students in mind. The award winning K-8 public school is focused on design thinking, making, and project-based learning—all of which Wanny believes engage children, and grow their natural curiosity.

Wanny spoke to EdSurge about how making builds empathy, why it’s important to compensate teachers for continuously learning, and her advice for administrators who want to drive change through design thinking.

EdSurge: How do you define design thinking and making?

Wanny Hersey: For me, making is creating something. Whether you're cooking or putting on a show or sewing—or creating some new technology to solve a problem—that’s all making. Design thinking gives purpose to making. It's a problem-solving, action-oriented, human-centered process that we engage in to assist our students in their journeys as makers.

You have to engage students in making in meaningful ways, and not just making for the sake of making; there must be intentionality. For example, I would never want students just coding so they can learn a coding app. If you only do it in isolation—and have no contextual value or it doesn't apply to anything—it's meaningless. Instead, we have second graders who are coding because they're creating a game to teach others about nutrition and healthy foods.

Design thinking and making and project-based learning—these are processes. They're tools educators can use to understand students' needs and provide them a structure where they can build on their abilities—no matter what level they’re at—and integrate their passions in learning.

How do you think a maker mindset and design thinking can prepare students for their futures?

At Bullis, we believe that all children should be global citizens. We don't know what they're going to do when they grow up, but we're going to prepare them to be creative and collaborative, and to be able to work with people from all different disciplines.

When they’re working on a making project using the design thinking process, they develop empathy because they need to understand their audience or who they’re designing for. They’ll understand that it's important to be able to listen to others and to understand that everybody has something to bring to the table.

In the rapid prototyping step, students quickly try things out in order to find out what works and learn from failures. They also have to be willing to commit to action; these are all great life-long skillsets to have.

When you provide making opportunities regularly to students, they’ll have a mindset of being lifelong learners, seeing failure as an opportunity to learn and not as something that is going to stymie them, and being excited about the possibilities.

EdSurge: Do you have any favorite stories about how making can impact students?

Yes! One that comes to mind is a former Bullis student who designed and developed wireless temperature sensors to help biologists study leatherback turtle nests more easily.

Costa Rica and leatherback turtle conservation are themes we cover in K-6, integrated within the state standards we teach. One of the units is understanding the life cycle of the leatherbacks and the threats they encounter at each stage. Students are challenged to design and create prototypes to help save them or protect their eggs. Then in sixth grade, they actually go to Costa Rica to work along scientists who are studying the leatherbacks to see if their prototypes may be feasible.

One student saw that scientists patrol the beaches and put devices in the [turtle] nests to measure the temperature of the eggs. He realized it was very labor intensive, because they had to regularly check the device in the nest to record the data. What he learned there stuck with him. In high school, he designed sensors that—once added to the nest—continuously gather temperature readings, saving the biologists a lot of time. That was inspired by his trip and all the making that he's done at Bullis.

What does collaboration look like in a design thinking environment?

Our teachers are expected to collaborate across disciplines. In the first grade KidTown unit, students are posed the driving question, “What makes some businesses succeed and others fail?” Students start their own business in which they must determine what product to sell, where to house their storefront in a fictitious town, how to advertise to attract customers, manage a budget, and assess their business’s success.

Teachers cover grade-level standards such as adding and subtracting single digit numbers through calculating costs for supplies, rent, and products. The science and engineering components emphasize construction design of their product and students use different materials and technologies in the makerspace to make their product efficiently and affordably. In Mandarin, students learn how to greet customers and count when making change. In music, students learn advertising jingles—analyzing their appeal in order to compose and perform their own.

What’s one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced bringing design thinking to Bullis?

Here at Bullis, we expect teachers to be able to execute and nurture creativity and growth and the making mindset. And we want them to be that type of person too. Because to put yourself in the position of being a learner is going to make you way more empathetic to the students. Our students are making in so many different capacities and our teachers must be able to plan, facilitate, and assess this process to ensure that they are learning and meeting benchmarks.

But we are finding that learning how to teach in this way is not covered by many teacher colleges and teaching preparation courses. Teachers may have heard about making and design thinking or had some experience, but they've never been at a school like Bullis where an entire staff is engaged in these processes pedagogically as well as with a mindset. As Bullis continues to grow and add teachers, we have to do a tremendous amount of onboarding and training.

We have a teacher residency program. They get immersed in the entire process of executing project-based learning units. Bullis also offers ten days of professional development every year before school starts, where all teachers attend workshops. BCS teachers are compensated based on a performance-based model, determined by their professional skills and abilities and student outcomes. We want to honor people who are committed to continuously learning and growing and having the same mindset as students.

What advice can you offer other administrators who want to drive change through making and design thinking?

The most important thing is recruit well, look for teachers who have the right mindset. Then, ensure families understand what you're doing. Making and design thinking are foreign to them and can be a little bit scary. You need to show them the importance of having a design thinking mindset and how beneficial it will be for students in college and their careers. Show them that what students are learning is important in the outside world.

We invite parents in to see the culmination of some project-based units—and they are blown away. Kids are excited and proud to show their parents, and they explain things in a deep way. When parents see their kids loving to learn . . . I can't think of a parent who will deny that opportunity for their child.


Autodesk's new Maker Starter Kit provides ten steps to help you launch a maker program in your school, organization or community. Access the complete Maker Program Starter Kit here.

Full size image here.

This article was sponsored by Autodesk and not written by the EdSurge editorial staff.

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